Pre-WWII SM Leather

By Gayle S. Rubin

From the LeatherHistory E-Group
On Sat, 13 Apr 2002, dogg_starr1 wrote:

Their newest claim is that the old guard invented WIITWD and specificly the “leather lifestyle”. I have been challenged to find  documentation that there was a “leather lifestyle” before WWII.  Normally I pretty much ignore their challenges, but I happen to be interested in learning about our history pre WWII, myself.

One of the problems here is a failure to distinguish between the overlapping but distinct histories of heterosexual and gay male SM, as well as a confusion between a “leather lifestyle” and “SM.” These terms also overlap, but have some different connotations and can refer to different phenomena and institutional complexes, particularly in the past.

SM and kinky sex certainly predate WWII. But the set of institutional and symbolic structures called “leather” did not. Moreover, “leather” as community form– as distinct from leather as a fetish– was largely developed by gay men after WWII and did not initially refer to heterosexual practice. Over time, “Leather” eventually began to function as another general term for all SM, but originally in its gay male context meant masculine gay men, gay men who were into motorcycles, and kinky gay men who all inhabited a community largely structured by gay leather bars and gay bike clubs. Not everyone in such leather communities was interested in SM. In addition, the term “Old Guard” pretty much referred to the first generation of these gay leather men who formed these leather communities in the late 1940s and early 1950s and the styles they pioneered (a superb essay on this period and these guys is the one by Guy Baldwin in his “Ties that Bind”). So in that sense, “the old guard” can be said to have invented “the leather lifestyle.” But this does not mean they invented nor ever claimed to have invented sadomasochism or fetishism.

Leather was a sexual fetish long before. Moreover, SM was practiced long before leather was a significant sexual fetish, much less before the development of “leather communities.” But the institutional contexts were different. There is a fabulous dissertation by Rob Bienvenu on the history of SM as a cultural style that covers a great deal of the history of organized non-gay male SM and fetish in the 2oth century. I highly recommend it.

There is scattered documentation of SM activity in, for example, late Victorian England and turn of the century Europe. There’s a book by Ian Gibson called The English Vice that has material on specialized flagellation prostitution; similar material can be found in other books on the sexual underworld in late 19th century London.

Turn of the century (that’s the last turn of the century, not the recent one) sexology contains plentiful descriptive data as well as attempts to interpret and explain SM (be warned, however: SM was considered a pathology).

Among early sexology, some works stand out. Havelock Ellis’ Love and Pain is a fascinating exploration of what he called “algolagnia” (love of pain) and provides ample evidence that people were certainly doing SM in the
early 20th century. Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis is full of cases of SM, fetishism, and flagellation in the late 19th century. The focus there is on individuals (suffering from sexual pathologies), but one can still catch occasional glimpses of some kind of heterosexual SM public life. It’s nothing to compare with what exists now, but for example, one of his cases reported responding to newspaper ads from women with language such as “lady, strict teacher, seeks pupils….” There is a book devoted entirely to Sadism and Masochism by another early sexologist, Albert Eulenberg. Eulenberg’s book was translated into English (from German) and contains photographs from around 1900 that document professional “Mistresses” (although that term is anchronistic), houses of prostitution that specialized in flagellation, scenes in progress, and equipment for bondage and flagellation. Most of Eulenberg’s photos were in turn reprinted from still untranslated works by other sexologists writing in German, notably Hirschfeld and Wulffen. But when all these men were writing none of this would have been called “the leather lifestyle.”

Unfortunately, Krafft-Ebing, Ellis, and Eulenberg’s books are all out of print, so yes, you do need to check used book stores or your local libraries. I think Guy’s book is however available. I’m not sure about Gibson. Rob’s dissertation can be obtained through University Microfilms and I think he also has it posted on the web.

Happy hunting.

PS. It seems to me I do a version of this post every year or two; you might check the archives for a previous one.

PPS. stay tuned– there are a lot of people doing work on the history of SM now, so there is a good bit of excellent research in the pipeline. This just wasn’t considered a subject for serious historical scholarship until recently, so most of the material on SM from the mid-20th century is psychiatric and medical and has little information on the social worlds of practitioners.

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